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Katharine Vann

MA work

Crafting Race; Plaster Casting Indigeneity at the American Museum of Natural History 1896-1905

This dissertation looks at a collection of plaster busts made from life masks of Native Americans by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York from 1897 to 1905. To understand the logic of crafting racial interpretations, it examines the process of manufacturing these objects. This analysis unearths three main groups of actors that altered the course of these objects: the anthropologists who commissioned them, the craftsmen who produced them, and the indigenous peoples whom they represented. The conventional way of interpreting these objects are as anthropological data that literally captured individuals’ faces in plaster. As well as being objects of science, this dissertation asserts that these artefacts must also be considered as objects of craft. The overarching question throughout this work probes the extent to which the actual processes used to manufacture these objects eclipsed the identity of the individuals captured in plaster.


  • MA Degree


    School of Humanities


    MA History of Design, 2017

  • A History of Design student curious about the design of bodies, and the intersection of craft and science. 

    For my second year dissertation I won a place on an exchange for Fall Semester 2016 with Bard Graduate Center (BGC) in New York City. I undertook five months of archival research in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), working with a series of over five hundred plaster casts, life masks and busts made of indigenous North American peoples from 1896 to 1905. My 25,000 word paper explored the intersection of craft, science and anthropology, suggesting that AMNH sculptor Caspar Mayer played a direct role in crafting popular conceptions of indigeneity. My work opens up discussion about the repatriation of indigenous artefacts that fall beyond the scope of The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The life masks, casts and busts occupy in-between spaces not covered by NAGPRA, being neither human remains nor cultural artefacts that can be returned to communities.

  • Degrees

  • BA Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Cambridge, 2013
  • Awards

  • Bard Graduate Exchange Award, 2016